Remote Hearings: A Professional Legal Interpreter’s Perspective

Remote Hearings: A Professional Legal Interpreter’s Perspective

For legal interpreters, the requirement to hear every single word, expression and utterance from a client or witness is paramount: otherwise how can we accurately translate for the benefit of all parties? It’s challenging work even in ideal circumstances. But when we’re forced to translate from a remote location using audio-visual equipment that can vary widely in quality and efficacy, it can cause problems that are at best an irritation, and at worst may be disruptive. How can we overcome this?

Remote hearings, both in court and in arbitration, are now commonplace: the “norm” rather than the exception. Many lawyers have written extensively about the challenges of practising and operating remotely. But where do legal interpreters come into the picture?  How have we been impacted by the need to socially distance from our clients and colleagues in all of our professional activities?

On the back of seven months of lockdown experience doing nothing but remote legal interpreting, I can safely say that I too have had my fair share of challenges. Not because of the requirement to work remotely – that’s just a part of life now. But because of the lack of reliable technological infrastructure altogether or the breadth of technology being used that’s of varying – and sometimes questionable – quality and suitability.

From my perspective I believe it would be fair to say that the three main issues are:

1) the use of proper internet cable connections

2) the use of professional microphones by all

3) the ability for interpreters to see all the documents being produced – crucially, in both languages and at the same time.

First E&W High Court remote hearing, March 2020

The first-ever remote High Court hearing, before Mr Justice Teare, was in the CIS matter National Bank of Kazakhstan and the Republic of Kazakhstan v The Bank of New York Mellon and Stati Parties. The Court used Zoom, with support from event production specialist Sparq.

Considering all the technical challenges everyone was facing, the hearing went, from an interpreter’s perspective, remarkably well.

It is still early days, but as things stand, Zoom- or BlueJeans-assisted consecutive interpreting appears to be the way forward. But if remote hearings are to continue for the foreseeable future (which doubtless they are) we should be wary of taking these platforms on faith. At a basic level they are perfectly adequate, but for legal interpreters they have their limitations.

Among the key technical constraints, I would list the following:

  • Currently Zoom only allows one channel to be used per event. As an interpreter I need to be focused on the person speaking. But  as soon as anyone in the virtual court room makes a noise the main speaker’s microphone and camera switch off and everyone stops hearing what (s)he (e.g., the Judge, counsel, witness, expert etc) is saying and all you begin hearing is the ambient noise (cough, dog barking, bundles being moved etc.) The picture also switches to the person making the noise, so the interpreter stops seeing the one person we need to be paying the closest attention to. This often results in someone using the phrase that has now entered the vernacular: “Can everyone else go on mute please?”
  • IP sound quality often leaves much to be desired. Even in the best of circumstances, the standard of sound and video feed interpreters receive needs to be much higher than that which speakers or listeners in the room might otherwise find acceptable. The reason for this is that, contrary to the rest of participants, interpreters “drown themselves out” because they need to speak even as they listen to the feed.
  • It is nearly impossible for interpreters to ask a question (e.g., ask the witness or counsel to repeat, clarify, speak louder etc) without causing a disruption to the proceedings. One of our main objectives is to be as unobtrusive as possible as we are interpreting. Imagine how we feel when we are the cause of prolonging a session because we cannot hear properly. 

Equipment, internet connection, headphones

Quite a few venues have recently begun offering the services of a “hub”. These include the IDRC, the IAC and at least one simultaneous interpreting equipment provider, M&R Communications.

The benefit of a hub is that it takes care of all the technical support and logistics needed, including making provision for reliable Wi-Fi, audio and video feed, sound equipment etc, usually to a standard not available at home.

A hub also offers a great deal of flexibility in the sense that people can decide for themselves whether they prefer to work from home or from a hub. “Hybrid” hearings are also perfectly possible: some participants may be using the hub while others, particularly witnesses giving evidence from remote locations, will connect via videoconference.

From an interpreter’s perspective, a hub is the next best option to meeting face-to-face, and infinitely preferable to everyone  participating remotely from home. The principal advantage being that, in a hub interpreters can use fixed professional interpreting equipment and hardware, rather than portable home-grown IP-enabled remote interpreting platforms which suffer from all the woes and ailments of internet-assisted equipment (slow signal transmission speed, narrow bandwidth, loss of signal, pixellation, etc.) and then some.

That said, should the judge or the tribunal direct that using a hub is not an option and that the hearings must proceed fully remotely, i.e. everyone attending from home or office, then the only viable option is for each participant to use their own computers, rather than hardware made available by a hub.

In these circumstances, and crucially, from the interpreters’ standpoint, this requires a greater degree of discipline on the part of all the speakers. Surely, that would be in the best interests of all the parties concerned.

We are not asking for much, just that everyone uses an ethernet LAN cable, rather than Wi-Fi, and professional headsets with built-in microphones. Unfortunately, using laptop mics or rudimentary iPhone headsets severely diminishes sound quality creating all the problems I’ve already discussed.

LiveNote or similar transcription screen

It is also important for legal interpreters to be able to follow the real-time transcription feed.

When working remotely, the situation is made more difficult by the fact that in addition to the laptop that each interpreter will be using, they will also need to be relying on a) either a second laptop to follow the transcript, which obviously not everyone has available, or b) have a second laptop, formatted, vetted and certified fit for purpose, to be provided by the instructing law firm.

In my recent experience, on several occasions LiveNote laptops were made available by Opus2, who also provided the services of transcribers/court reporters. This is welcome, but I recommend that interpreters should be allowed the opportunity as well as the time to familiarise themselves with the real-time transcription hardware and to test it, well in advance of the hearings.

Magnum and other document display hardware

The other complicating factor is that, unlike in an in-person hearing where assistants may be on hand to help interpreters with finding the various documents which are being turned up, in both languages and in real time, in a remote setting the interpreters either need to have all the hard copy documents delivered to their homes in advance, or use an electronic document display system, e.g. the one that until most recently has gone by the name of Magnum.

Our challenge with Magnum, however, is that it is not entirely fit for purpose so far as interpreters are concerned.

The system’s designers and developers understandably had lawyers and judges in mind as their primary target audience and did not give sufficient (or any) thought to how Magnum was going to work (or not work, as it turns out) for interpreters.

The two screens (one for each language) require considerable human input. Interpreters have no time nor indeed ability to juggle several pieces of hardware while simultaneously listening to the speakers, reading the exhibits, analysing what is being said, thinking about the best way to translate what they are hearing and interpreting.

Yet there is usually only one Magnum operator/engineer available in the court room to handle both the English and non-English texts. Obviously his or her top priority is to meet the demands of those in the court room who read English.

That said, even for English documents, the operator sometimes fails to upload the documents to the screen fast enough, or to properly scroll them down if and when counsel begins quoting from them.

Needless to say, for documents in foreign languages, this situation is exacerbated by their lack of knowledge of that language.

Far too often, interpreters have been reduced to ad-libbing an imprecise approximation because the operator was physically unable to follow the foreign-language document in real time.

This can create confusion and even lead to unnecessary discussions in court about terminology because the interpreter used a different word, rather than the one from the agreed bundles.

The system is simply not quick or flexible enough to be used by interpreters.

Interpreters have no control over what the operator is doing, nor the time or ability to give them instructions (“go slow”, “go faster”, “scroll down”, “skip to the next page”, etc…), and therefore become hostages to the operator’s expertise and competence, or lack thereof.

It’s not just about the technology

There is, of course, a fourth constraint with not being in the room when our services are required.

In face-to-face meetings we sometimes need to control the speaker’s delivery. For example, when we need them to speak up or slow down or even stop so that we can translate accurately. We would usually employ a variety of subtle physical signals from a facial expression to a raised eyebrow or even gently touching an arm – all of which is accepted practice while performing our duties.

In remote proceedings none of these options are available to us. All we can do is interrupt loudly and ask for clarification, repetition, etc. All of which is a further disruption and can prolong the proceedings to the frustration of everyone involved.

My recommendation is that during their witness familiarisation sessions lawyers take account of the absence of control that we have and increased cognitive load on interpreters inherent in a remote hearing. For example, by asking witnesses (or experts) to remember to speak slower and in smaller chunks or shorter sentences than usual during the hearings, and to be prepared to repeat themselves when we ask them to.

Conclusions

As a group, legal interpreters are not “anti” remote interpreting. Every business and profession has needed to quickly adapt, and we really do believe that remote interpreting is feasible. We even believe that remote consecutive is a perfectly viable option.

However, we draw the line at remote simultaneous from home: it’s  unprofessional, is not ISO compliant and will not be for some time. No remote simultaneous interpreting platform is capable of providing the sufficient sound and video quality that would guarantee that we can provide any quality work. They are makeshift “solutions” which should be limited to exceptional circumstances.

The very nature of remote working (remote speakers, non-conference room settings, lack of audio technicians, random microphones, microphone management by speakers themselves, network shrieks, dropped and/or bumped microphones, etc) create an acoustic environment one might compare to a minefield.

For simultaneous remote, ideally interpreters should be using a hub with smart, modern and reliable equipment, including ethernet cables and professional headsets.

And everyone should take advantage of this infrastructure, not just interpreters.

Allowance needs to be made for the extra time interpreters have to spend finding documents in the two (if not more) languages without the benefit of a human assistant intimately familiar with the case materials.

Remote cross-examination will now necessarily take longer than originally anticipated by counsel and, again, allowances need to be made.  

Extra time needs to be factored in for longer and/or more regular pauses and breaks. 

The witness or expert needs to be warned in advance that the interpreter may need to interrupt them to ask them to slow down, stop or repeat themselves and for all speakers (not just witnesses) to watch their interpreter on-screen for any sign of technical difficulties.

A special dedicated protocol needs to be developed and agreed in advance for interpreter intervention in case of insufficient quality of audio-visual input.

And last but not least, interpreters need to be provided with a real-time transcription feed and electronic document display functionality allowing them to view both the transcript and the documents in all the languages and at the same time.

This will let legal interpreters do their job to the highest standards that everyone expects and that we want – and are ethically and professionally obligated – to deliver, in the best interests of our clients.

7 Comments

  1. Author

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    Thank you for a brilliant essay on a very pertinent subject. Your analysis and recommendations are spot on

  2. Author

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    Thanks, Victor. A very timely piece. Let’s hope the points you make are heeded.

  3. Author

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    Very useful article. I have very similar experience with remote depositions. Following Victor’s would be beneficial for all parties involved.

  4. Author

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    This should be read by everyone contemplating remote interpreting, this information is equally essential for interpreters and clients alike.

  5. Author

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    Absolutely true, these recommendations are very useful . Thank you

  6. Author

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    It was such a pleasure reading your thoughts about remote interpreting and I totally relate to it. Thank you

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